SSmall cars drive through the narrow lanes of the industrial park in Ōta — the southernmost of Tokyo’s districts. This is where the process developer and integrator LPS Works is based, and from its office window you have a clear view across a narrow estuary to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, the world’s fourth largest airport.
A constant stream of aircraft land and take off on this man-made island, a bustling scene that is echoed inside the LPS Works building as well. A total of 18 engineers are busy in the company’s laboratories, carrying out complex technical work on ceramics and new kinds of steel.
From research to mass production
LPS Works is an investment of the successful machine part manufacturer Fujita Works. Masahito Terui, superintendent of sales, explains the concept behind their business: “Our company was founded in 2009 as a microprocessing knowledge cell. Nowadays many industries need materials to be processed on an ever-smaller scale with ever-increasing levels of precision. The semiconductor industry is just one example. Our job is to develop and accumulate the know-how they require to achieve that.”
LPS Works’ customers cover a broad spectrum, ranging from universities and national research institutes to big and small companies based in diverse sectors of industry. They have a common need to incorporate tiny features or perform high-precision cutting and drilling work on a micrometer scale, and they are on a common quest to find someone who can develop a suitable technical process.
Masahito Terui sees the company as a developer and knowledge gatherer. (Photo: Benjamin Parks)
The team of engineers discuss the next application for ultrashort pulsed lasers. (Photo: Benjamin Parks)
This seemingly unremarkable door ... (Photo: Benjamin Parks)
... is the entrance to one of Japan’s best and most successful material processing laboratories. (Photo: Benjamin Parks)
“Since the beginning, we’ve mainly worked with ultrashort pulsed lasers. Much of the work we do is so complex that we have to develop or integrate the beam guidance system, optics and all the rest of the machine. So it makes perfect sense for our customers to purchase the machine from us after we’ve developed the whole process.”
This step-by-step process of carrying out the research, producing prototypes and selling the machine has now become the knowledge cell’s most successful business model. Obviously that affects how the engineers approach each job: “Right from the start we’re envisaging how it will work on an industrial scale, so it’s no good just finding a solution for the actual processing. Whatever we develop has to work fast, and you need to know exactly how it will be integrated into the customer’s production environment.”
One example is an automaker that contacted LPS Works in 2013 hoping to find a way of structuring a new kind of ultra-high-strength C steel, known as a carbonized UHSS (Ultra High-Strength Steel). The company had already made unsuccessful attempts using milling machines and UV lasers, so the Tokyo-based engineers decided to develop a USP laser process.
You can’t just come up with some random machining solution. It should also always be suitable for mass production.
Today the machine is up and running on the production line, where it is used to structure a fine die surface of ultra-hard auto parts. Another industry that relies on LPS Works when the going gets tough is the semiconductor industry. “For example, we developed a technique for drilling ultra-small holes with a diameter of just 30 micrometers in ceramic plates. The application called for the distance between the holes to be just 100 micrometer, which was extremely challenging.” LPS Works built a special trepanning optics system that angles the beam generated by the ultrashort laser pulses and rotates it around a wobble point.
This corrects the taper angle, enabling the engineers to give the tiny holes an edge angle of exactly 90 degrees. But that was only part of the story, says Terui: “The hardest part was reaching the tremendously high speed the customer needed along with the enormous precision: only a few seconds per hole.” These rapid movements generate frictional heat at the axes, and the material expands more and more.
“In reality of course it expands very little, but on the scale we’re talking about it’s enough to create significant inaccuracy. So we had to find a way of keeping the temperature constant everywhere throughout the entire process,” says Terui, and then pauses. “Unfortunately I can’t reveal how we did it, but it really is tremendously exciting!” he says, laughing.